Despite game performances from the cast and a unique family dynamic, Greg McLean's supernatural horror can't feel anything but pedestrian
The reason I like horror so much is because it’s typically an enjoyable genre regardless of the quality. If a horror film is really good, the fear and fun you experience is one that you can’t get anywhere else; while if a horror film is bad, the fun you can have laughing at many of the things they’re deeming “scary” can be equally as raucous, especially with friends. When I first saw the trailer for “The Darkness,” it was a rare moment where I saw a bit of both in a film. On one hand, the film had some genuinely creepy moments in it (the handprints get me for some reason), but were balanced by scenes where I laughed at the things terrorizing this family (the wolf in the treehouse, anyone?). But I held a smidgeon of hope that it could pull through, if not only for director Greg McLean’s previous work on the “Wolf Creek” films, both vastly underrated serial killer thrillers with some pretty brutal kills.
But with “The Darkness,” you get what the trailer sells. Use that to your advantage.
Focusing on a family of four, “The Darkness” chronicles the story of a family camping in the Grand Canyon, when the youngest member, an autistic boy named Michael (David Mazouz), takes sacred Anasazi rocks from a hidden temple site, not knowing the havoc he would unleash upon him and his family doing so. With supernatural things occurring around the house, these spirits unleashed work to tear the family apart in their domestic issues, including the patriarch, Peter’s (Kevin Bacon) infidelity to his wife, Bronny (Radha Mitchell), who is a recovering alcoholic, trying desperately to connect with her teenage daughter, Stephanie (Lucy Fry), who suffers from an eating disorder.
First, the good. The performances in the film, for a low-budget horror film, were mostly solid. Bacon and Mitchell carry the film mostly, with Mitchell getting the best scenes out of anyone. I know Mitchell can do good horror, as seen in 2006’s “Silent Hill,” to which I still believe is one of the more artful contemporary horror films ever made. Bacon does a good job at being sleazy and unlikable at times, but actually does a good job in his redemption arc, a subtlety I didn’t expect to see in a film like this. Mazouz is fine as Michael, but unfortunately, it’s Fry who struggles as Stephanie at times. She’s not bad, her performance is just a little inconsistent at times. Her emotion in the more intense scenes are often a bit too over the top and singles herself out among the strong cast as a bit of a weak link. This comes as a small surprise from her work in “Vampire Academy,” which was one of the better parts of that film.
The family dynamic of the film was something I really enjoyed as well, as it wasn’t just a normal, white suburban family with no problems being terrorized by spirits, this family is pretty screwed up, which plays heavily into how they handle the supernatural forces working against them. I was thrown off a bit at first with some of these inclusions, mostly with Peter’s greasy demeanor and unfaithfulness to his wife. I thought that it added a nice layer of depth to the film that you don’t get in many other horror films.
But then there’s the bad. Like it or not, “The Darkness” is just not very scary. The film brings up some interesting ideas about family and how strong that is in the face of danger, but never once was I truly scared for this family’s safety. Every jumpscare seemed to come from a mile away and they typically existed to ruin some more subtle moments in the film that would’ve made it a lot less cliché. The film leads you exactly to where you expect it to lead you and doesn’t offer much beyond that. It’s strange to see a film with such a unique family dynamic and such a weak scare system.
The film also uses the whole “White people messing around with Native American spirits” trope that’s used in so many horror films. It’s a bit tiring when a culture and it’s legends are used for the sake of scaring people outside of the culture. Now, “The Darkness” does handle it in a much more respectful way than many other horror films of its kind, but it uses the trope in the first place. Respectful or not, it’s slightly annoying.
“The Darkness” also takes a long time to get where it needs to be, leading to an incredibly short finale that felt a bit jipped. Working so hard to build a solid atmosphere, the film needs to supply a serviceable conclusion to justify spending over an hour with set up. While nothing is technically wrong with the set up in a technical sense, as McLean does a good job for the most part behind the camera, it just feels a bit disingenuous and underwhelming once the abrupt ending comes.
“The Darkness” is in no way a terrible film, it’s just one that’s very misguided in its attempts at scaring an audience. From a technical standpoint, it’s a better than average horror film when it comes to dialogue, directing and acting. The family dynamic of the film is one that elevates the film’s atmosphere and gets us more involved than a normal horror film would. It’s when things start to get thrown down in the supernatural world that “The Darkness” loses the audience. Utilizing all of that talent and good writing on cliché after cliché started to wear down on me. And it made me realize at that point, that all of those good things didn’t matter, “The Darkness,” while good in many places, didn’t deliver on what it was there to do, scare me.
Directed by: Greg McLean
Starring: Kevin Bacon, Radha Mitchell, Lucy Fry, David Mazouz, Ming-Na Wen, Paul Reiser.
Runtime: 92 minutes
Rating: PG-13 for thematic elements, some disturbing violence, brief sensuality and language.
High Top Releasing and BH Tilt present, a Blumhouse/Emu Creek Pictures production, a film by Greg McLean, “The Darkness”